Director: Catherine Breillat
Writer: Catherine Breillat
Starring: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo
This forthright film examines the pitfalls of two teenage sisters making the awkward passage from adolescence into sexual adulthood. Released in some countries as Fat Girl, in typical Breillat fashion À Ma Soeur! had a polarising effect on its audience. Its candid depiction of teenage sex met with significant disapproval in some quarters; the film was banned in Canada and not even submitted to the American NCAA review board. However, it won several awards including Best Film at the 2001 Chicago International Film Festival.
À Ma Soeur! tells the story of the Pingot sisters, 15-year-old Elena (played by 19-year-old Roxane Mesquida) and her younger sibling Anaïs; the latter’s screen age is not specified but she is played with great verve by 13-year-old Anaïs Reboux. The sisters are on a seaside holiday with their emotionally absent, chain-smoking parents. Elena is slim, attractive and feeling her body’s yearning for sex but she is saddled with her overweight little sister, the titular fat girl. Both siblings have low self-esteem but while Elena dreams of losing her virginity to an adoring lover, Anaïs has an emotional maturity that belies her years and recognises the danger of pinning too many romantic hopes on one’s first sexual encounter.
The film opens with the sisters ambling from their holiday camp to the nearest town, talking about sex and swapping insults in the way that only people who genuinely care for each other do. Elena and Anaïs reach a seaside café only to find all the tables taken. A young Italian man, Fernando, offers them seats. Elena accepts and soon makes her interests abundantly clear by French kissing him, while Anaïs wades into a banana split with equal gusto. (Throughout À Ma Soeur! all of Anaïs’ food choices are phallic.)
That night Fernando sneaks into the sisters’ bungalow. Anaïs, sworn to silence, pretends to sleep while a seesaw encounter takes place between Elena and Fernando: the battle between her (and Fernando’s) desire for sex and the restraining influence of the covenants. The conflict hangs in the balance as Fernando insouciantly flicks cigarette ash into an ashtray balanced on Elena’s belly. Whether this girl-as-ashtray moment is a metaphor for Elena’s self-worth, or whether it was just an acting choice, it’s an intriguing beat. Elena’s desire triumphs and they undress.
Elena lies on the bed, her raised nightie revealing her pubic mound while untidily smothering her face, almost like a veil. Even more striking is Fernando’s penis, shown in its attentive state with complete contempt for mainstream socio-cinematic mores and their underlying sexual negativity. Elena may see this as a romantic moment but Breillat doesn’t mirror that with the colour palette; instead she foregrounds the young lovers against the room’s almost putrescent grey-green walls. Short of cockroaches crawling across the duvet Breillat can hardly have made the moment of Elena’s sexual initiation more unappealing. Breillat’s point seems to be that if we are ever to understand why sex is such a thorny problem we must stop looking at it through Brigadoon-misted eyes and see it as it truly is, particularly for our teenagers as they grope their way to sexual maturity. It’s a good point, too. As demonstrated by Tommy and Donna’s sub-plot in Last Exit to Brooklyn—and further explored in subsequent chapters—our covenants admonish sex outside of an emotionally committed relationship. Because of this, teenage sexual encounters are all too often scrambled and secretive affairs occurring in locations less determined by romantic fantasy and more by hormone-fuelled necessity.
Fernando and his cinematically inappropriate erection sprawl onto Elena, expecting immediate entry, only to be refused. On the brink of penetration the covenants kick in with renewed force and Elena suddenly doubts his claim that he loves her. She is trying—and failing—to convince herself that it is emotionally legitimate for her to have sex with Fernando. According to the covenants, sex is only appropriate in the context of romantic love, but this causes Elena a significant problem: she knows even less about love than she does about sex.
According to the covenants, sex is only appropriate in the context of romantic love, but this causes Elena a significant problem: she knows even less about love than she does about sex
Elena is physically ready for sex but not emotionally ready for love; consequently she cannot resolve the paradox she now finds herself in: she doesn’t know whether her emotional exchanges with Fernando constitute love. This entire construct—the need to believe in Fernando’s love—stems from (and is an attempt to circumvent) Elena’s unconscious shame.
After various linguistic contortions fail to break this impasse, Fernando attacks from another direction—the rear—and suggests anal sex on the basis that it “doesn’t count.” Tired and defeated by an emotional deadlock her upbringing has left her unprepared for, Elena assents. The camera cuts to show Anaïs, lying in the dark, listening to the intermingled cries and groans from the adjacent bed. This is a critical image: Anaïs rejects the emotional fraud of her sister’s anal defloration and will fashion for herself an entirely different form of sexual initiation.
The sex ends and Elena suddenly feels ashamed. With her physical urges temporarily sated, she instantly senses she has transgressed and experiences the same shame, guilt and self-disgust as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Bud in The Brown Bunny and Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher after fellating Walter at the skating rink. But Elena’s newly-liberated libido soon reasserts itself; she ushers Fernando off with a kiss and the promise that next time she will admit him through the main entrance.
Following the first sex scene (yes, there is more; this is Breillat) À Ma Soeur! enters an interlude where the film is at its most assured. Fernando, Elena and Anaïs visit an isolated beach. While Fernando gropes Elena among the sand dunes the camera lingers on Anaïs, the dumpy unwanted youngster forced to tag along while her elder sibling explores adult concerns. Her mixture of rejection, loneliness, angst and ennui is beautifully caught in a series of stark seafront images. Anaïs sits heedless in the surf in a brand new dress, the waves lapping between her legs as she sings malevolent little ditties about sex and death, both self-penned and self-directed.
Echoing Lynda Mansell in Wish You Were Here, back in the bungalow Anaïs raises her nightshift and stares at the troublesome swellings on her chest. It’s a troublesome moment for the audience too: a 13-year-old girl staring in the mirror at her own budding sexuality. Then Anaïs and Elena cuddle up together, sharing some girlie musings in the film’s most enchanting scene. Anaïs Reboux has deservedly earned plaudits for her portrayal of the podgy younger sister, but Roxane Mesquida’s contribution should not be undervalued. Elena reveals a ring given to her by Fernando and wallows in naïve imaginings of true love. Of course, Fernando has only given her the ring so she feels indebted to spread her legs. The viewers know it, Fernando knows it; even young Anaïs knows it. Only Elena is ignorant of the worthless return she will receive for her virginity.
Fernando arrives; the second sex scene is much shorter, the shot of his penis made more graphic by him unrolling a condom onto it. (Say what you like about Breillat but she does promote safe sex.) Once again the camera shifts to Anaïs, crying this time as her sister gets fucked, emotionally as well as literally.
Then Breillat nicely turns a minor incident into something significant: Fernando’s dreadful mother appears, squealing like a stuck pig and requesting the return of the ring her son stole. The Pingot holiday collapses in acrimony over the exact nature of Elena and Fernando’s contact. Cut to the stony-faced mother driving Elena and Anaïs home (the workaholic father was written out of the script early on). The mother mutters darkly about having Elena “inspected.” It’s clear she’s not talking about her daughter’s teeth. The real driver here isn’t that Elena had sex but her mother’s sense of shame, echoing the misplaced concerns of Lynda’s father in Wish You Were Here and Big Joe in Last Exit to Brooklyn.
The long driving scenes, through the dusk and into the night, create a growing sense of unease. The mother finally pulls into a motorway stop and falls asleep. Elena does likewise, leaving Anaïs alone. Elena’s last words warn Anaïs to lock her door. Does Anaïs intend to asphyxiate the lot of them? No, Breillat has something much more bizarre in store. A homicidal axe-wielding maniac leaps onto the bonnet, smashes the windscreen, caves in Elena’s head then strangles the mother—all for no reason other than it’s in the script. Anaïs, who naturally ignored her sister’s advice, staggers into the woods. As the maniac looms over her she whispers, “You won’t hurt me.”
The film cuts to the next morning, with the Pingot car at the centre of a crime scene. A gendarme leads the bedraggled Anaïs out of the woods, where she is brought face to face with the captured maniac. Anaïs—clearly lying—says he didn’t rape her; her face freezes on the screen as the film ends. Unfortunately, the double murder trivialises everything else in the film including Anaïs’ sexual initiation through rape. This is a major misstep by Breillat, for it is Anaïs’ rape—and her subsequent denial of it—that is the thematic climax of À Ma Soeur!; a climax that has been subverted through placing it in the context of an event which is emotionally larger but thematically smaller.
Despite this, À Ma Soeur! remains a good film with a powerful underlying idea: many teenagers are ready for sex before they are ready for love; the problem lies in demanding them to wait for the latter before engaging in the former. Elena fools herself into believing that she’s in love with Fernando in order to have sex; in the aftermath she feels ashamed of her actions, knowing deep down that the tinsel trappings of love were a lie. Anaïs transcends her society’s unease with teenage sex and avoids the emotional distress suffered by her sister by facilitating and then denying her own sexual assault. In Breillat’s nihilistic world it almost seems as though Anaïs’ choice is less damaging than the sacrifice of Elena’s emotional wellbeing on the altar of Fernando’s erection.
It is instructive to compare the last two films, not just in content but also in narrative style. Malèna has a voice-over from the adult Renato, looking back through rose-tinted glasses at his own coming-of-age. With its lush cinematography the film has the warm, cosy feel of nostalgia; the fact that Malèna herself is emotionally destroyed by the film’s events is basically ignored. By contrast, À Ma Soeur! depicts what should be one of the most joyful transitions in its protagonists’ lives in a harrowing manner. After the double murder and rape that ends the film it is difficult to imagine Anaïs Pingot maturing into an emotionally balanced adult. A third, disingenuously dangerous style of storytelling is evident in the next film, the glossy Hollywood fable The Man in the Moon.